In discussing his new book, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots, the journalist John Markoff pointed out how polarizing the subject of automation and its effect on employment tends to be.
“You can go from the International Federation of Robotics on one side, which argues that we are on the cusp of the biggest job renaissance in history, to Moshe Vardi, a Rice computer scientist, who argues that all human jobs will be obsolete by 2045,” Markoff observed. “Which group is right?”
If Peter Drucker were around, I don’t think he’d hesitate to serve up an answer: Neither.
Drucker, who had watched this struggle play out many times over many years, believed that the inexorable march of machines was neither a panacea nor a complete catastrophe. And he was wary of any analysis that tipped too far in one direction.
“The technology impacts which the experts predict almost never occur,” Drucker wrote in his 1973 classic Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.
Indeed, Drucker viewed automation as a decidedly mixed bag—a lift for those fortunate souls with the knowledge and skills to take advantage of the shifting landscape of work and a huge challenge for many others invariably left behind.
One of Drucker’s first looks at this double-edged dynamic came in 1946, when he visited the Mississippi Delta and witnessed the mechanical cotton picker replacing laborers in the field—for better as well as for worse.
“It is easy—and very popular in the Deep South today—to see only one aspect of the technological revolution through which the Cotton Belt is passing: the removal of the dead hand of the cotton economy and plantation society, the establishment of a sound agriculture and of a better balance between industry and farming, higher incomes, better living standards, the end of sharecropping—in short the final emancipation of both white and colored from slavery,” Drucker reported in Harper’s magazine. “It is also easy to see only the other aspect: dislocation, the suffering, the uprooting of millions of people who will lose their homes and their livelihood.
“However,” Drucker added, “the full picture, as in all technological revolutions, emerges only if both—the better life for those who can adjust themselves and the suffering of those who are pushed out—are seen together and at the same time.”
Over the decades, as agriculture gave way to manufacturing and much of manufacturing was supplanted by knowledge work, Drucker worried ever more about those who were being “pushed out.” He feared that they would lose not only their income, but also the basic sense of dignity and fulfillment that comes from putting in a solid day’s work.
The “shrinkage of jobs in the smokestack industries and their conversion to being capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, that is, to automation, will put severe strains—economic, social, political—on the system,” Drucker warned in his 1986 book The Frontiers of Management.
From his earliest writings to his last, Drucker offered the same prescription to deal with such hardship: the creation of meaningful opportunities for lifelong learning. After all, he wrote in 1955, “if there is one thing certain under automation, it is that the job . . . will change radically and often.”
Of particular note now—in an age where artificial intelligence threatens to upend the careers of even the most well-educated white-collar workers—Drucker didn’t preach the importance of lifelong learning for any one type of occupation. Everyone, he thought, must continually be prepared to take in and master new ways to approach their job.
“This will be true in all areas of the organization: rank and file, office work, technical and professional work, managerial work,” Drucker asserted. “On every level, adult education . . . will be needed.”
Making this happen was, in Drucker’s eyes, a joint responsibility. The public sector has its part—to make sure that “schools and employing institutions . . . work together in the advanced education of adults.”
“School,” Drucker wrote in 1993’s Post-Capitalist Society, “has traditionally been where you learn; job has been where you work. The line will become increasingly blurred.”
Employers also have their role, including “active and energetic attempts at retraining for specific new job opportunities,” as Drucker put it. And each employee must step up and be ready to embrace what’s being taught—over and over and over again. “People have to learn how to learn,” Drucker advised. “No one is allowed to consider himself or herself ‘finished’ at any time.”
These concepts are not, in and of themselves, earth-shattering. But they are extremely difficult to execute, for they require from all parties—educators, executives and individual employees—attributes that are distinctly human: vision, heart and courage. As Drucker knew all too well, none of that comes with the simple press of a button.
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